Wouldn’t it be nice if NASA could help astronauts travel to Mars in mere days? Well, a concept called photonic propulsion could make such a dream a reality. Although this sounds like a science fiction movie plot, there are real world examples at work. If NASA scientists have their way, this technology could drastically reduce the time it takes robotic crafts — and eventually humans — to space travel.
So what is photonic propulsion exactly? Well, according to the Daily Mail, it’s a concept that involves using “light from lasers to produce thrust to drive spacecraft.”
These lasers would help crafts travel at speeds closer to that of the speed of light, also known as creating a “relativistic speed.” With spacecraft moving at such high speeds, time would slow down for anyone aboard them. It would even cause passengers to age more slowly than the people walking around on Earth.
At the moment, we only really understand these concepts thanks to movie magic experienced via such films as Interstellar. Professor Phillip Lubin and his team from the University of California Santa Barbara are working to make the concept of photonic propulsion an everyday, real-world concept.
Said Lubin, “We know how to get to relativistic speeds in the lab, we do it all the time.” The scientist complained that when it came to travel at the macroscopic level (using cars, airplanes, and space shuttles), humans are still “pathetically slow.”
We shouldn’t be too hard on NASA when it comes to speeding up Mars travel. As of now, it’s believed NASA scientists have figured out ways capable of getting human travels to the “red planet” in as little as five months. While that may seem like a long time, it was only a few short decades ago where many believed traveling to Mars would be impossible over any stretch of time.
Thanks to continued technological advancements, such things are not only possible, but they are also increasingly probable. For example, The Mary Sue pointed out that the Kepler space telescope is using techniques similar to photonic propulsion with photons traveling from the Sun. Kepler is using these photons to “balance itself and continue its space mission.” The Planetary Society is also using a similar technique for propelling its Light Sail spacecraft.
Using lasers to get the job done will be far more practical at this point than using the Sun. Still, there’s a major hang-up that may make the use of photonic propulsion to travel at one-tenth the speed of light hard to manage: putting on the brakes.
Getting to speeds approaching the speed of light is a hard enough task on its own, but then you have to factor in the ability to stop — and stop safely. Wired suggests that the act of deceleration could be the most challenging aspect of making three-day Mars trips a reality.
It’s also worth mentioning that the “three day” number is more or less about transporting robotic crafts from Earth to Mars. It’s believed that human-occupied crafts using photonic propulsion would be forced to travel slightly slower.
NASA scientists remain committed to exploring photonic propulsion as a space travel option, but it’s not the only form of space travel they’re busily working on developing. There’s also NASA’s EM drive, which Daily Mail described as an “impossible’ fuel-free engine could take a human to Mars in just 10 weeks.” It would certainly seem like practically a snail’s pace compared to the use of relativistic speed. Remember, current “best speed” options put travel to Mars at an optimistic five-month estimate. The EM drive would ultimately be able to cut that time by more than half.
Do you think we’ll be able to travel to Mars using photonic propulsion? If so, how many years away do you believe that this advancement is? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!
[Photo Illustration by NASA/JPL via Getty Images]